Thursday, May 28, 2009

I Climb Like a Girl

"The Big Concept: Climbing is a movement sport, not a strength sport. The best climbers are good at climbing; strength matters far less than the combination of the climber’s motion skills, attitude and mind. The best way to become a better climber is develop better movement; strength will develop specifically for climbing movement as fast as it is needed. Most climbs are combinations of movements; the better the climber is at those movements, the better he or she will climb the route. Strength is not even secondary, it’s about last on the list of needed skills."
--Will Gadd

I credit two people with teaching me the fundamentals of climbing, both are girls. And I'm damn lucky they took me under their girly wings.

Generally speaking, boys and girls approach climbing differently. In the beginning - on those first 5.7s and 5.8s - boys tend to use upper body strength and power to climb. Girls on the other hand usually do not have that upper body strength and must rely on *gasp* learning technique. This makes for an interesting comparison curve. Boys move quickly through those lower grades, being able to power through moves. Girls progress more slowly, learning balance and movement skills.

But strength takes you only so far. Mr. Gadd is correct: Climbing is a movement sport, not a strength sport.

As the climbing grade (difficulty) increases, it becomes less and less about pure strength. And this is due to many factors: balance starts playing a larger role with smaller holds and steeper inclines presenting a climber with more off-set balance moves; on higher grades the margin of error becomes smaller and things like center of gravity (COG) go from "important" to "critically important"; and the placement of hands and feet on holds and the timing of each movement become paramount.

Which is why when you work on your balance and hand placement and edging and all those other aspects of climbing in the beginning it means those higher grades are much more attainable.

So those who focus just on strength tend to move up through the lower grades quickly and then plateau; and those who rely on technique move through the lower grades more slowly but do not hit that same plateau. And the best part about learning technique? You gain the strength along the way.

I am eternally grateful to Rosa and Kristen because they would not let me rely solely on my boyish strength and were continually pointing out ways I could improve technique. (Rosa: "Use your feet! Use your damn feet!") At times it felt like the stream of commentary from my climbing partners was criticism, but it gave me the skills to lead a 5.12 in a relatively short period of time.

I'm not claiming that strength is unimportant to climbing. It is, in fact, on the list of have-to-haves in climbing. But the importance of strength is overemphasized and a misunderstanding of what kind of strength is needed (isometric versus concentric, anyone?) is perpetuated, especially by new climbers. I remember grumbling something about 'not being strong enough' and Kristen telling me that she couldn't even do a pull-up. This from a girl who looks like she dances up 5.11s. At the end of the day climbing is about a lot of things. But I'm lucky I learned to climb more fluidly and efficiently and not just stronger.

I climb like a girl. Thank God!

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